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On average, SAG-AFTRA processes 90,000 to 100,000 residuals checks a week, intaking, scanning and remailing to members or their agents the vital funds that help sustain working and middle-class actors between gigs.
And in an extraordinary week, with acting jobs nowhere to be found and national unemployment filings across all industries spiking sixteen-fold to an unprecedented 3.3 million, those monies are all the more essential.
So, even as most Los Angeles workers are under stay at home orders, a third of SAG-AFTRA’s L.A. staff continues to report to work under an exception for essential businesses granted by the mayor’s office. And last week, the union’s residuals processing and related departments — roughly 60 workers out of the 120 deemed essential — processed about 95,000 checks worth an estimated $20 million.
“Even with the increasing concerns about COVID-19 in Los Angeles, our staff has eagerly taken on the challenge of getting members and their families as many residuals checks as possible during this time,” said national executive director David White. “I could not be more proud of this team who, along with their colleagues around the country, are responding to member issues from coast to coast. They are showing their true colors through their courage, good humor and deep concern for our membership.”
A SAG-AFTRA spokesperson said the union was following social distancing guidelines and also providing disposable gloves to the teams, which in turn have been spread out over several floors of the multistory headquarters building to increase the social distancing. Meanwhile, the office is being cleaned and intensively disinfected daily. White or COO/general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland are in the office each day.
Despite the precautions, a union source said some of the staff have been asked by their families why they were risking infection by reporting to work.
“With productions shut down across the country, these checks have now become actors’ primary and only source of income,” said a member of the processing staff in a statement provided by the union. “My job oftentimes seems small and uncomplicated in the grand scheme of things, but today I believe I’m doing maybe some of the most important work in this time of crisis.”
Two inanimate workers help out as well, giant machines that open and scan the checks, then insert them in envelopes for remailing. They’re third-generation descendants of equipment nicknamed Rocky and Bullwinkle that the union installed in 2011 in an effort to speed processing time. Back then, the Screen Actors Guild handled about 2 million checks per year.
Today, even with a direct deposit initiative, successor union SAG-AFTRA dispatches about 4.6 million physical checks annually — a volume that dwarfs that of the directors and writers guilds — and does so with what the union says is an average 30 day turnaround time.
“With the massive disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is possible we may experience minor delays, but our goal remains 30 days,” said the spokesperson. The union is rotating workers and generally keeping residuals processing going six days a week during the crisis, as well as making other accommodations as much of its staff and officers such as its president, Gabrielle Carteris, work from home.
On Tuesday, the union’s unwieldy board of directors delegated its powers to a smaller executive committee to facilitate videoconferencing. The motion delegating those powers identified the union’s core functions: “negotiations, contract enforcement, organizing, and collection and distribution of payments to performers.”
“During this critical time we are obligated to our members to deliver their residuals in a timely manner,” said Valery Kotik, SAG-AFTRA’s national director of residuals processing, trusts and estates. “We also have a responsibility to our staff to provide a safe and secure work environment — we are making every effort to meet the expectations of both members and staff. Even in such troubling times we have seen such positivity.”
He applauded the efforts and dedication of the residuals staff and the support of the union’s document center and IT department. That same focus was echoed by White.
“As I’ve said before, very little that we do is more important than getting our members their residuals,” said White. “And that couldn’t be more true today.”
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